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Hands-on, in-person competitions win, hands down

Virtual options filled the temporary void, but teams are ready for in-person competitions

Published June 13, 2022

Additional Can’t Hold Down Hands-On Learning articles:

Over the years, academic competitions have become increasingly popular, attracting students of all ages and walks of life. From simple school science fairs to knowledge bowls to national competitions such as FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), competitions often bring out the best in students, pushing them to go beyond what they’ve learned in the classroom by applying those concepts and skills to real life and the world around them.

Beyond teaching kids how to fail forward and lose gracefully, these competitions increase teamwork, collaboration, SEL skills, build growth mindsets, and help students find their place in the world. Academic competitions enable students to test themselves in different areas and find their passion. As the FIRST website notes, the competition “helps young people discover a passion for STEM and develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in today’s competitive workforce” (firstinspires.org).

And, FIRST is just one of many academic competitions available. KidWind Challenge Events, for example, focus on wind and solar energy challenges, while SkillsUSA® competitions include a wide variety of career and tech ed events designed to introduce students to the skilled workforce.


When COVID-19 hit in 2020, most academic competitions were canceled, leaving a void in many students’ school year and even summer. So, when several competitions resumed in 2021, albeit virtually, teams were glad to have at least something to look forward to.

What teachers and students alike discovered, however, is that, while a virtual competition beats no competition at all, there’s just nothing that compares to in-person competitions. Virtual competitions kept everyone safe, but teams missed the face-to-face interaction of the in-person challenges.

“I definitely prefer in person,” said Dale Toney, who teaches advanced manufacturing at Belleview High School in Belleview, Florida, and also coaches the school’s robotics and SkillsUSA teams. Belleview had the only team from Florida in the 2021 SkillsUSA: Commercial sUAS (Drone) Competition, which, like all the SkillsUSA competitions that year, was held virtually.

“I felt that the group that ran the event did a really good job,” said Toney, “but communication was really challenging. The national event was stretched over two weeks and that was problematic when we were out of school. Students were not enjoying it by this time and it was difficult to get them to come and practice. When the competitions occur in person, students are more focused and can plan accordingly. . . . In person is, by far, preferred. The comradery between the teams and the help and visual learning that happens at these events can’t be replaced by a video camera.”

Sam Warwick, engineering instructor and robotics coach at Heritage High School in Maryville, Tennessee, also feels in-person competitions have a distinct advantage over virtual competitions. Heritage High School had a two-person robotics team compete in the 2021 SkillsUSA: Robotics Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) event.

“My students missed being able to meet other people, team building through sharing experiences, and getting the experiences of traveling to cities you’ve not been to before,” he explained.

Technical issues also came into play during the virtual competitions. “Personal feedback from the judges is much better than through Zoom,” said Toney. Meanwhile, the USAR teams were dealing with a new requirement due to the virtual nature of the competition. “The virtual competition was also a challenge because of the technical requirement of filming a streaming course run, in the summer, without our IT department,” said Warwick.

The last two years of canceled or virtual-only events have hit team recruitment hard as well. “I normally have an interview process for positions on the teams,” said Warwick, “but it was really hard to recruit team members this year as it has been almost three years since we traveled. In fact, we did not enter two of the competitions we normally enter because of a lack of students. . . . All of my students who traveled with us in the past have graduated, so my current students don’t have anyone they know who has had the full competition experience.”


Things are beginning to open up across the US now, and that includes academic competitions. And, Toney and Warwick – and their students – couldn’t be happier.

“We are looking forward to having in-person events this year,” said Warwick. “And, I’m looking forward to introducing my current students to the team building and challenges that only in-person events can offer.”

Toney is equally excited. “We will be competing in SkillsUSA drone competitions this year,” he said. “We have two teams of two students each. They will be building drones and learning telemetry, FAA rules, and flying skills as well as troubleshooting and repair skills. More importantly, they will be able to share their experiences with other teams, and that is a huge connection that doesn’t happen virtually.”

Warwick’s teams will also be preparing for SkillsUSA competitions, but in the USAR arena. “Hopefully, we will qualify for the nationals in Atlanta.”

Pitsco is ready for in-person competitions too!

Pitsco is also excited to see in-person competitions opening back up! We are affiliated with several competitions across the country, including the FIRST Tech Challenge, SkillsUSA: USAR and Commercial sUAS events, Technology Student Association events, Science Olympiad, and the World Robot Olympiad. Be sure to look for Pitsco booths and personnel at these and other events in your area! See Pitsco.com/Experience-Pitsco/Events for a full list of upcoming events!

“Above all, I have a program in place that students can use to solve disagreements. Aside from the excellent science content, this program is about developing interpersonal and communication skills.”

– Vicki Royse Koller, Temple Beth Am Day School, Miami, Florida

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